I wonder how much wider but partial knowledge of a book can put you off reading it. Have you seen the film? Have you heard of the film in some vague way and so thought, hmmm, it’ll be this type or that type? I confess this book is not what I expected it to be. From the opening paragraphs I was pulled in. The prose is rangy and sparse, borderless. It is exquisite.
The use of motifs is sublime, with elementals colouring the view of each of the characters-in-transformation. We see how air steals across the page, almost unnoticed – even to the extent of approaching war being likened to a hand at an attic window. And stone is the saving grace of young Kip, what he clings to in those drifting moments, his protector, the thing that grounds him and keeps him alive. Water is everywhere. Even in its desert absence it lies hidden, its ability both to mould a thing, and to mould around a thing a celebration of that for which we hunger most.
You’d think it would be a depressing read, were you to scan the plot of the tale, but it’s not. It’s wholeheartedly human, and so fragile but persistent and ultimately affirming. If you’ve not read it, read it. If you’ve not read it recently, read it again. Recommend it to someone. It’s a thing of beauty.
For the second time in her life, Iris Chase assumes an unassailable position from which to tell a tale. And how she tells it. There’s a palpable sense of the season’s march, the treachery of age in Iris’s chapter openings. We feel her reaching into the past, reaching for the people who are no longer there. She is on borrowed time – a troublesome heart – and she yearns too for her estranged granddaughter’s return. The people she does come into contact with, in the main, she feels she could do without.
Transition is rife: the World at War, social unrest, family upheaval, the change from girlhood to womanhood, marriage. And where she might have expected courtship there is none, parental protection there is only bargaining. Iris is not one of the shapers of this world. Even in the eponymous book within the book, the world is bartered and shaped between the lovers.
In the end there was neither love, nor justice to speak of. Everything is lost to Iris, even her granddaughter. And it’s Sabrina she writes for now – sets down her testament (as surely she must always have known). It’s a setting straight, a relinquishing of the fiction of the past – a reshaping. So much of living is blind, and dangerous – both love and justice, we are reminded, are blindfolded as they wield their weapons. But it’s not so much what we can’t see, but what we choose not to see which damages the most.
It could be a thoroughly bewildering experience to try and weave your way through this book. It’s the first I’ve come across that has its own website dedicated to the lexicon. It’s an interesting feeling though, to find yourself on the brink of understanding when umpteen sails on a tossing ship are being furled or unfurled – the language serves to deepen the sense of scene, even when half-understood. It’s in those tense moments, or in the emotional outbursts of overblown colonials that it comes to the fore. The characters are many and varied, too, and with the exception of the white colonialists, not one of them presents themselves as who they are from start to finish. Latent in each – like a dormant poppy seed – is a different person ready to emerge.
It’s a book of underdogs, and so by association a book of overlords too. A converted slave ship carrying a free-born son of a slave and slave owner – white enough to pass – carries indentured workers from the opium coast to cut sugar in Mauritius. And you can see the shade of empire, and how it was neatly built, and on whose backs.